Mentoring is key for success in any number of careers, but especially for women in male-dominated industries like tech. After all, only 54 percent of women have access to senior leaders who act as mentors in their career, according to a 2017 study by the recruitment firm Egon Zehnder.
CNBC Make It spoke to women leaders in big and small tech organizations and asked what they wish they'd asked a mentor and why. Their answers can help young workers of any stripe break into new industries and better navigate their careers.
What three things in the last three years taught you the most?
Sophia Dominguez, CEO and co-founder of immersive VR company SVRF, said she wished she'd known more about the biggest events and challenges in her mentor's career and how they impacted her growth. Explained Dominguez, "Human beings learn the most when they are faced with issues that they had to work extremely hard to overcome."
What is one thing I can do today to be more effective?
Mentors want to know that you can take clear feedback, according to Deb Liu, vice president of Facebook Marketplace and co-founder of the organization Women in Product. Asking this question, she said, gives your mentor permission to say the hard thing to you. "By showing a willingness to be vulnerable and open to feedback, they will share insights with you that you otherwise will not get."
What do you wish you knew at my career stage?
Hindsight is always the clearest. Ask your mentors what could have helped them overcome some of the same early hurdles you're facing, said Annie Weckesser, vice president of communications at NIO, an electric car company. "History repeats itself. You can learn from others who have blazed the trail ahead of you."
What are my blind spots?
Sometimes you just need an outside perspective, according to Suzanne Livingston, a director at IBM Food Trust, a blockchain-based platform that traces food through supply chains. Knowing her own "default behaviors or communication styles earlier could have helped her push past them when needed," she said.
"If you have a growth mindset, you can unlearn [those] default patterns," she added.
What decisions got you where you are today and what alternatives did you consider?
"The more time I spend in the industry, the more questions I have about what I want to do next, and most of my mentors have gone through the same thought process as me. Knowing what they considered and why is really helpful," said Jesar Shah, product manager at Twitter.
Who's in your squad?
Get closer to your mentors by knowing more about the network they've built, advised Sam Raue Hebert, vice president of production at Jellyvision, a software company. "Hearing what areas they're focusing on can identify gaps in your own support system and inspire new areas for your self-improvement," she said.
How do I find a champion for me?
Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder and CEO of TechGirlz, a nonprofit that advances girls in tech, said it's invaluable to have a champion that can help you navigate a company or organization, and who can recommend you for projects or promotions when they become available. "I wish I'd understood this earlier in my career and asked my mentors for help in identifying the right ones," she said.
What were your top three failures?
When she first started her job, Freia Lobo said she felt stressed about getting everything right. "In retrospect, hearing more about mistakes and failures would have been helpful to take some of that unnecessary pressure off," said Lobo, an associate product manager at Twitter.
What did you learn from your failures and how did you deal with them?
Asking about failures would have allowed her to view her own accomplishments "in a broader context, savoring both the good and the bad on the ultimate path to achieving my goals," said Tanya Jenkins, senior staff validation engineer at electric car company NIO.
It's important to get a full picture of your mentor's career, added Gina Ma, senior director of driver experience operations at Lyft. "I wish I had asked my mentors for a more textured view of their life journeys, to learn about what didn't work out, what caused them to pivot, the risks they took, and what most shaped their learning," she said.
Discussing those failures can also change your relationship with your mentor, said Jessica Naziri, founder of TechSesh, a lifestyle technology digital magazine. "You get a more real answer and can have a honest and open conversation with your mentor."
How can you achieve successful work-life integration while trying to advance your career?
In order to be successful you have to have balance in your life personally and professionally, said Holly Good, national chapter chair, Women in Electronics. "My younger self thought the only way to achieve success was to work more hours, and I have learned over time that is not the case."
How do you manage career planning?
Reaching certain leadership positions and executive level jobs doesn't happen by accident, according to Jeana Feely, San Diego regional chapter chair, Women in Electronics. "Critically thinking about each step in my professional career path is not something I have done with guidance from someone who has walked the road before me," she said.
How do you approach time management when running a team?
Lara Cohen, global head of partnership solutions at Twitter, said she wishes she'd asked her mentor about time management, specifically regarding managing reports while driving strategy and contributing as an individual.
"I prioritize my team always, and clearing a path for them to do their best work is crucial to me. I would have loved to hear some of [my mentor's] strategies for how to manage both sides of being a great leader," she said.
What did you need to sacrifice professionally or personally to accomplish your goals?
Sacrifice is not only inevitable but necessary, too, said Jackie Mattox, founder and president, Women in Electronics. "I have made many sacrifices along the way to achieving my life's successes, and as women, we often put too much pressure on ourselves to do everything perfectly," she said.
For Mattox, hearing the cost of success from someone she admired would have put things into perspective and helped her understand that not being able to "do it all" is okay.
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